A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that El Dorado is a 1967 Western in which a gunslinger (John Wayne) teams up with an alcoholic sheriff (Robert Mitchum) to stop a thieving rancher and his henchmen. For much of the movie, Mitchum's character is in various states of extreme whiskey intoxication -- slurring his speech, getting into fights, stumbling over his feet and his words, and passing out. In another scene, a character played by a young James Caan sneaks into the bad guys' lair by pretending to be a Chinese man, engaging in the worst kinds of stereotyping, replete with slanted eyes and mispronounced letters and a painfully dated accent. The term "Injun" is also used. Some Western-style violence: rifle and gun shooting and killing, bad guys killed by thrown knives. A teenage boy shot in the chest turns down the offer of help, and commits suicide by shooting himself when no one is looking.
What's the story?
Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is a gunslinger who arrives in the town of EL DORADO because he has been hired by Bart Jason (Ed Asner), a wealthy and powerful rancher who has hired Thornton to fight a rival rancher's family, the MacDonalds, in a range war. But when Thornton learns that siding with Jason would put him at odds with the local sheriff, Thornton's long-time friend J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), Thornton turns down Jason's offer. But when he rides back to town, Thornton reflexively shoots one of the teen MacDonald teen boys, who had been asked to keep lookout despite his lack of experience and had fired a warning shot at Thornton. After the boy commits suicide when Thornton's back is turned, Thornton takes the body back to the MacDonald ranch, and explains that he is not siding with Jason. However, the MacDonalds' oldest daughter does not hear this, and shortly after shoots and hits Thornton, causing a painful bullet wound near the spine. Several months later and no longer in El Dorado, Thornton learns from the man who took the job he turned down that Harrah has turned into a terrible drunkard. With the help of a young man named Mississippi (James Caan) who has gone west to avenge the murder of his mentor, Thornton returns to El Dorado to try and sober up Harrah before Jason and his men kill him and steal the water rights to the MacDonalds' land. When they arrive, Thornton finds that it's as difficult to sober up Harrah as it will be to stop Jason and his men, but with the help of Mississippi and the Deputy Sheriff, Thornton must find a way to achieve one and then the other.
Is it any good?
While there is certainly some period charm to this movie, much of it has not aged well. While the chemistry between Wayne and Mitchum is legendary, other aspects of El Dorado, such as alcoholism being shown as something semi-comical and a painful imitation of a Chinese man by Caan, prevent it from belonging in the league of Western movies for the ages. And while there are exciting action scenes and entertaining dialogue at times, the complicated threads of the storyline make this best for those who are already fans of Westerns.
While each individual aspect to the story is interesting enough -- rival range owners fighting for water rights, a heartbroken sheriff who can't stop drinking, a young man avenging the death of his friend, and a gunslinger trying to do the right thing in the thick of all of this -- none of these storylines quite congeal, and it's sometimes hard to figure out what's happening and why. Layers of narrative and backstory should enhance the action, not detract from it, and there are times when the action grinds to a near standstill while sorting out the motivations of the characters and the reasons for the action. This is ultimately why, despite the presence of two of film's immortals, El Dorado hasn't stood the test of time as a great movie.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Western movies like El Dorado. Why do Westerns have such a timeless appeal? What are some of the elements and conventions of Westerns that create this appeal?
This movie stars John Wayne, an actor who often played the same type of character in movies. What was that type? Who are some other examples of actors and actresses, today and in the past, that often played the same type of character?
How does this movie portray alcoholism? Is it realistic? Why or why not?
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